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Missing Marine Dead Discovered on Tarawa

The remains of more than 100 marines who were killed during the battle of Tarawa appear to have been discovered in mass graves on the tiny Pacific atoll, according to a group that conducted a search with ground-penetrating radar this fall.

Mark Noah, executive director of History Flight, a Florida-based military history nonprofit, and Ted Darcy, a Massachusetts historian with the private military research organization WFI Research Group, say they have located 139 graves on Tarawa in eight sites. Their find could lead to the largest identification of missing American soldiers in history.

Keiji Shibasaki, commander of the Japanese garrison on the two-mile-long islet of Betio, had bragged that it would take a million Americans a hundred years to take Tarawa. Beginning on November 20, 1943, it took 35,000 soldiers and marines three days— in one of the most brutal amphibious assaults of the war, and the first to encounter heavy resistance on the beaches. Of some 4,700 Japanese defenders there, only 17 survived.

More than 900 marines were killed in the fighting, many of them while wading through the surf for hundreds of yards after their landing craft were caught on a reef at low tide. The men were buried in mass graves, where the military planned to retrieve them and bring them home when the war ended. But as navy engineers swooped in to begin airfield construction on the island, many of the burial sites were covered over. After the war, only half of the bodies could be found and returned to the United States. The rest of the dead, a total of 541 soldiers, were listed as missing.

After more than a decade of research and two expeditions, Noah and Darcy, a former marine himself, say they have found at least some of those missing men. Their claim is backed by burial rosters, combat reports, and interviews with construction contractors who have found human remains at the site.

Noah and Darcy planned to share their findings with the Department of Defense in January; the federal government will conduct any excavation of the site. “We’ll make one additional trip to the island to search for the remaining grave sites and make arrangements for the return and identification of the bodies,” says Noah. “Allowing the families of the missing to finally have closure is our foremost goal.”

Several family members of the missing soldiers have said they would like their relatives’ bodies returned to the United States. “In the marines,” Darcy has told reporters, “we were taught to never leave any man behind.”

Hundreds of American GIs Held in Concentration Camp

A bout 350 American POWs who either were Jewish or appeared to be to their German captors were imprisoned in the Buchenwald concentration camp during World War II, according to survivors who have begun telling their stories in a series of special reports on CNN.

Anthony Acevedo, a medic in the 70th Infantry Division during the war, was the first survivor to step forward with the grisly tale of the American soldiers held at Berga an der Elster, a subcamp of Buchenwald. After being captured during the Battle of the Bulge, Acevedo says he was sent to a POW camp near Bad Orb, Germany, where he was held with other American soldiers. About a month later, the camp’s commander told the prisoners to line up and ordered all of the Jewish soldiers to take one step forward. When few volunteered, Acevedo says, about 90 Jewish soldiers and more than 250 others the Germans thought “looked like Jews” were put on a train to Buchenwald. Acevedo, a Mexican American, is not Jewish.

Once he arrived at the concentration camp, he saw dozens of his fellow soldiers beaten, starved, and in some cases executed for trying to escape. Forced to dig tunnels for 12 hours a day in the final weeks of the war, the prisoners were given 100 grams of bread per week and soup made from rats. As a medic, Acevedo was required to use wax to fill up the holes in the skulls of prisoners who had been executed. When American military units neared the camp, the prisoners were forced with the rest of the camp’s inmates on a three-week death march. Fewer than half of the remaining soldiers survived.

Those who did were sworn to secrecy by the army. “We had to sign an affidavit …[saying] we never went through what we went through. We weren’t supposed to say a word,” Acevedo told CNN. Frank Shirer, the chief archivist at the U.S. Army Center of Military History, asserted that the men’s stories were kept secret “to protect escape and evasion techniques and the names of personnel who helped POW escapees.”

Last fall, Acevedo, 84, finally broke his silence, determined to share his experience with the world. After his story appeared on CNN, two congressmen asked the U.S. Army to recognize the service of Acevedo and the rest of the Berga soldiers. “These heroes have not received the recognition and honor they deserve,” Reps. Joe Baca (D-Calif.) and Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) wrote in a letter to the army secretary in November.

Veteran of Countless Small Skirmishes Turns 45

The prototypes were called “Rocky,” “Skip,” and “Ace.” But as Don Levine, the creative director of the toy manufacturing company Hasbro, continued to tinker with his new, first-of-its-kind action figure in 1963, he was looking for a better name.

The toy stood nearly 12 inches tall, and, with a manly scar across one cheek and oversize dog tags around its neck, featured 21 moving parts, making it a high-tech product for the time. Levine, though, wanted it to hark back to the past. The small soldier, with its plain fatigues, paid homage to the real men who fought in World War II and Korea, and he was searching for an equally old-school name. Inspired by a gritty Robert Mitchum movie released in 1945 about a group of GIs slogging their way through the North African and Italian campaigns, Levine finally settled on a name: GI Joe.

Few other products have captured the imaginations of the toy-soldier set the same way as Levine’s, which is celebrating 45 uninterrupted years on the market this February. While the toy evolved to reflect different eras—Joe was an adventurer in the 1970s, fighting crocodiles and sharks, and in the 1990s, equipped to nip the terrorist threat in the bud— it never strayed far from its basic mission.

Or its basic inspiration. Over the last decade the company has released a line of GI Joes called the World War II Classic Collection, which conjures up the style of its first action figures—including toy versions of Omar Bradley and Dwight Eisenhower— while honoring, once again, the grunts who won the war. Mitchell Paige, a marine platoon sergeant who won the Medal of Honor for his heroism in defending Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, probably would have scowled at anyone who dared to call him a GI, but Hasbro made a GI Joe action figure in his likeness in 1998. Paige died several years later, but 11.5-inch versions of him—along with a small army of fellow soldiers—are still ready for action, armed with an M1 rifle, a machine gun, ammo pouches, and two grenades.

Russia and Japan Set to Sign Treaty Ending World War II

Talk about a never-ending war. More than 60 years after World War II ended, Russia and Japan have restarted negotiations over a still-unsigned peace treaty that would finally bring a formal end to the war between the two countries. Taro Aso, the new Japanese prime minister, and Dmitry Medvedev, the new Russian president, agreed this fall to take “concrete” measures to address a lingering border dispute caused by the Russian occupation of parts of Japan.

At issue are a series of four islands off the northernmost coast of Japan, which Red Army troops invaded in 1945, after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings. The Russians expelled the entire Japanese population of about 17,000 from the volcanic islands—called the Southern Kurils by the Russians and the Northern Territories by the Japanese. Though some of the islanders were eventually allowed to return, the Soviet Union declined to give up ownership of the area. The other Allied powers signed a peace treaty with Japan in 1951, but the Russians, saying the treaty would force them to give the islands back to Japan, refused.

Ever since then, the mostly unpopulated island chain has been a bone of contention between the two countries; both claim ownership. The dispute is widely considered the reason for low trade activity between Russia and Japan, and tempers still flare around the issue. Last year, the Japanese government required its schoolchildren to be taught that the islands are part of Japan; this drew a rebuke from the Russian foreign minister. Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, many Russians have been loath to give up any more territory.

In the last several years, some Japanese politicians, including Aso, who took office last September, have proposed simply dividing the islands into two equal halves. This would leave Japan with three of the smaller islands and a quarter of the largest one. The idea is not very popular in Japan, and the Russians have not yet agreed to such a deal, but it could serve as a jumping-off point for further negotiations.

“We have to define the border otherwise this problem will remain an element of destabilization in the region,” Aso said after a November meeting with his Russian counterpart. Japanese officials believe the Russians are on the same page. “President Medvedev said he has no intention to leave the resolution of the issue to the next generation,” one official said. The issue will be discussed again when Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, visits Japan early this year.


Originally published in the March 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here